Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.
The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’
No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:
The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.
Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.
Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.
The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.
Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)
Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)
- How may income inequality be measured?
- Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
- Why has inequality grown in the USA?
- The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
- What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
- What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
- Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
- Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
There has been an interesting debate recently about whether the austerity policies being pursued in the UK are the correct ones. What would have happened if the government had pursued a more expansionary policy? Would the increase in borrowing, at least in the short term, have triggered a financial crisis?
Without austerity policies, would the eurozone crisis have led to a collapse in investor confidence in the UK, especially if Greece had been forced out of the euro?
On the one side, Kenneth Rogoff argues that increasing the UK’s budget deficit would have been dangerous and could have led to a flight from the pound. Generally, but with some reservations, he supports the fiscal policies that have been pursued by the Coalition.
I am certainly not arguing that the UK or other advanced countries handled the post-crisis period perfectly. There should have been more infrastructure spending, even more aggressive monetary policy and probably more ruthless bank restructuring. But there has to be a balance between stimulus and stability. To assume we always knew things would calm down, and to retrospectively calibrate policy advice accordingly, is absurd
Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis challenge Rogoff’s arguments. Paul Krugman uses a version of the IS-LM model to analyse the effect of a loss of international confidence in the UK following problems in the eurozone and worries about excessive UK borrowing.
In the model, the LM curve (labelled MP in Krugman’s diagrams) illustrates the effect of an increase in real GDP on interest rates with a particular monetary policy (e.g. an inflation target or a Taylor rule, which involves a mix of two policy objectives: an inflation target and real GDP). As GDP rises, putting upward pressure on inflation, so the central bank will raise interest rates. Hence, like the traditional LM curve, the monetary-policy related LM curve will slope upwards, as shown in the diagram.
Initial equilibrium GDP is Y0. The rate of interest is at the minimum level, r0 (i.e. the rate of 0.5% that the Monetary Policy Committee has set since January 2009). This, in the model, is the liquidity trap, where any increase in money supply (a rightward shift in the LM curve) will have no effect on interest rates or GDP.
In Rogoff’s analysis of a crisis triggered by excessive borrowing and problems in the eurozone, the IS curve will shift to the left (as illustrated by curve IS1) as capital flows from the UK and confidence collapses. Real GDP will fall to Y1. This will be the outcome of fiscal expansion in the world of the early 2010s.
Krugman argues that the opposite will occur. The outflow of capital will drive down the exchange rate. This will lead to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports. Aggregate demand thus rises and the IS curve will shift to the right (e.g. to IS2 in the diagram. Real GDP will rise (e.g. to Y2 in the diagram). If the rise in aggregate demand is sufficient, the economy will rise out of the liquidity trap and interest rates will rise (e.g. to r2 in the diagram).
Not surprisingly, Rogoff challenges this analysis, as you will see if you read his second paper below. He doesn’t criticise the model per se, but challenges Krugman’s assumptions. For example, a depreciation of sterling by some 20% since 2008 doesn’t seem to have had a major effect in stimulating exports (see the chart in the news item, A balancing act). And exports could well have declined if the eurozone economy had collapsed, given that exports to the eurozone account for around 44% of total UK exports.
Rogoff’s assumptions in turn can be challenged. Simon Wren-Lewis argues that, provided a credible long-term plan for deficit reduction is in place, maintaining a fiscal stimulus in the short run, to keep the recovery going that was beginning to emerge in 2010, would help to increase investor confidence, not undermine it. And, with a policy of quantitative easing, which involves the Bank of England buying central government debt, there is no problem of a lack of demand for UK gilts by the private sector.
What is clear from this debate is the willingness of both sides to accept points made by the other. It is an extremely civilised debate. In fact, it could be seen as a model of how academic debate should be conducted. There is none of the ‘shouting’ that has charaterised much of the pro- and anti-austerity lobbying since the financial crisis burst onto the world stage.
Britain should not take its credit status for granted Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (3/10/13)
Ken Rogoff on UK austerity mainly macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (3/10/13)
Phantom Crises (Wonkish) The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman (3/10/13)
Three Wrongs do not make a Right Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (7/10/13)
Is George Osborne really a hero of global finance? The Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (24/10/13)
- Explain how the policy-dependent LM curve illustrated in the diagram is derived.
- What would cause the policy-dependent LM curve to shift?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’. Why does being in a liquidity trap make monetary policy ineffective?
- How would you determine whether or not the UK is currently in a liquidity trap?
- How is the level of (a) public-sector debt and (b) private sector debt owed overseas likely to affect the confidence of investors concerning the effects of an expansionary fiscal policy?
- Compare the UK’s total external debt with that of other countries (see the following tables from Principal Global Indicators, hosted by the IMF: External debt and Short-term external debt).
- What insurance policy (if any) does the UK have to protect against market panic about the viability of UK debt?
- What areas of agreement are there between Rogoff on the one side and Krugman and Wren-Lewis on the other?